Robert Brunner of Ammunition: The Secret Weapon Behind Beats Headphones

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Beats blue, pink, white

In all the talk surrounding the Apple-Beats $3 billion deal, people generally agree that Apple has purchased that elusive thing called “cool,” namely the headphones that have achieved the same must-have status as Apple products themselves, not to mention, from some, the same criticism: high design, high price.

And behind those cool headphones lies a person, specifically Robert Brunner, founder and head of Ammunition design and branding company in San Francisco, and chief designer for Beats by Dr. Dre since Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre founded the company back in 2006.

Apple Purchase a Bitter-sweet “Validation”

Now Ammunition will be ceding the Beats branding to Apple, a bitter-sweet transition for Robert Brunner, especially as he was once head of design at Apple and was responsible for hiring its now famed designer Jonathan Ive.

If there’s an upside to the change, it is that in his view, “Apple is arguably the most successful design-oriented company of our time and for them to purchase a company which we have been developing the products for is a huge validation of the value we’ve created with that work.”

A Single Curved Line

On this segment Robert talks about his role in developing the now iconic headphones — “I drew a single curved line from one ear to the other, an arc, and that’s how the original product was born, this notion, of this very simple singular surface that ran from one side of the head to the other.”

He also talks about working with Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, two highly decisive, creative and driven music producers who, he says, wanted a headphone that was intended to channel their music, not please audiophiles. “The real secret weapon,” he says, “was Dre’s and Jimmy’s ears; because they created much of the popular music out there and they knew exactly how it was supposed to sound.”

He also talks about the lessons he learned from Dre and Iovine, such as becoming used to yielding design control to the individualized branding of the ‘phones that were tailored to music and sports stars; and he talks about the thrill of working with two people who knew exactly what they wanted — no need for focus groups — while giving Ammunition the freedom to run with an idea.


The Beat Goes On for Ammunition

Brunner’s company Ammunition grew in tandem with its work for Beats, and now has a large roster of clients including Ferrari, Polaroid, Adobe, Barnes & Noble and “a large number of early stage companies” whose innovations are still under wraps.

Much of their work, he says, has to do with figuring out “new and meaningful ways of changing the way we live through connectivity.” This means questioning the meaning of meaningful; for example, he asks: “Do I really need a connected toaster that scans my bread and tells me when it’s done?”

For Polaroid, Ammunition had the fascinating challenge of reviving a technology that had been superseded by smartphones. But, says Robert, “there’s a ton of equity there and we are working to recapture some of that spirit in a big way.” Ammunition designed a series of “rugged, rubberized 35-mm cube-shaped action cameras, above,” intended to appeal to a younger audience.

For Adobe, they’ve developed a “smart-connected pen that enables the iPad to become a drawing tool for professionals, not just for content consumption” (below).


Design’s Golden Age?

“I think this is a golden age for design,” says Robert, “I always say that technology enables but design establishes. . . . it’s all about how people understand and interact and cherish things in their lives. . . and at the forefront of that is the design of the thing.”

Click here for the entire show Robert Brunner was part of, also featuring architect Barbara Bestor, designer of Beats HQ in Culver City, and technology reporter Biana Bosker.